Stephen Pound MP on housing in Northern Ireland

Stephen Pound is a Labour MP for Ealing North and former Shadow Minister for Northern Ireland. From 1997 to 2010 he served on the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. agendaNi caught up with him in March during a visit to Belfast to attend the Northern Ireland Housing Conference.

Where does your interest in housing originate?

As a mature 30-year-old student at the London School of Economics I was able to crystalize my thoughts on housing and see the possibility of a solution as well as comprehending the extent to which the absence of a home could be fatal. I realised that if a person was ill they could go home and recuperate, if they lost their job they could go home and start applying for a new one but if you lose your home there is only a dizzying rapid descent into crisis.

Graduating in 1982 I went to work for Camden Council as a housing officer then Hammersmith and Fulham Council as a legal officer overseeing appeals and reconsiderations of housing applications.

In 1990 I went to work for Paddington Churches Housing Association dealing with private sector leasing and the nightmarish consequences of the ‘right to buy’ legislation that was sweeping through the social housing sector like a destructive whirlwind. This experience led me to become a councillor in 1982 and MP in 1997. I wouldn’t claim expertise but certainly have empathy and am privileged to witness the housing crisis in London from the perspective of the consumer as well as the provider.

How do you view the housing sector in Northern Ireland?

The Northern Ireland housing sector initially appears to be far better resourced than in Great Britain but since I was appointed to the Northern Ireland Select Committee in 1999 and the shadow Ministerial post in 2010, I have realised the full depth of segregation within the sector and accept that everything has to be seen through this prism.

Much of the housing stock that I have been able to visit shows a high standard of construction and internal layout and much of the poor quality immediate post-war construction – especially in west Belfast – has thankfully been demolished. I am constantly impressed by the quality of the housing professionals that I meet in Northern Ireland but often pull up short when I hear stories of paramilitaries interviewing prospective tenants and people being required to relocate from an estate.

The identification of new build units as belonging to one side or the other of the community divide is almost impossible for us in London to accept and I often wonder what a housing sector free from such restraints would look like.

Do you see any comparisons to the English and Northern Irish housing markets and the challenges they face?

The housing challenges that we face in both islands relate overwhelmingly to supply and access.

What are the major housing challenges you recognise in England?

My typical London borough has a population of 320,000 and a housing waiting list of over 14,000. Most will never ever receive an offer of permanent local authority housing. Access to the private sector is just as difficult with average house prices exceeding £450,000 in West London.

Ealing may sound like the Malone Road but we are far from that ideal and the chances of a young person or couple buying a property are diminishing by the day – unless there are parents who can afford to liquidate their assets and fund the purchase.

Northern Ireland’s lack of an Executive has meant decision-making has been on hold, restricting the long-term planning in the housing sector. Do you think Direct Rule, in some shape or form, could help change this scenario for the better?

With regard to direct rule I have to say that this would be a thoroughly retrograde step. There are excellent officials in the NIO but the principle of subsidiarity has to apply. The degree of ignorance exhibited by officials and legislators from Great Britain in respect of Northern Irish issues is a constant source of amazement to me and; as I believe that segregated housing is a huge issue for hosing providers in Northern Ireland, I also believe that the solution has to be arrived at and agreed locally.

People in Northern Ireland know more about the realities of life on the ground than ever we can in Whitehall and the sooner that an assembly and Executive are restored the happier I’ll be.

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